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Growing up in the shadow of Hollywood, of course I was exposed to cabaret belly dance first. But it would never inspire me the way tribal belly dance did, even though I had to get into regular ol’ belly dance before I could even be exposed to tribal…

An artistically blurry shot of me dancing at Amira as a baby-dancer in college. Photo by J. Diamond.
An artistically blurry shot of me dancing at Amira as a baby-dancer in college. Photo by J. Diamond.

I first began belly dancing in the late 1990s, in high school. I know that might sound weird.

Given that I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, the belly dance scene was pretty much solely cabaret and folkloric. Cabaret is what you see in most movies and restaurants; very glamorous and Hollywood-looking, while folkloric often emulates existing folk dances of the Middle East.

Further, belly dance was an unexceptional facet of the cultural landscape. I’d grown up seeing belly dancers at Moroccan restaurants, at the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire, and at the Greek Festival every year. Belly dance was as normal as sushi and avocadoes.

Coming from a liberal family as I did, the fact that I started studying belly dance as a teenager wasn’t a huge deal; it was just one more hobby to explore (I’d already played soccer for most of my youth, and since I was such an avid bookworm, anything that got me out of the house was probably something my parents looked favorably upon). No one freaked out and thought it might be too sexual, because it wasn’t.

Inexplicably, I was good at it. My only other exposure to dance was a summer camp my parents had signed me up for when I’d been eight. We’d done ballet, jazz, and tap over the course of a few weeks, and I loathed it. I remember the teacher being mean and not giving us frequent enough water breaks. I declared that I would never dance again, and returned to my first love, soccer. Later, I got into martial arts (primarily studying hapkido blend).

My first belly dance teacher was about as cabaret as it gets: her costumes were mostly sequins, and she said things in class like, “Just make pretty hands.” So, not huge on technique. Still, I thrived. I learned to isolate the major muscle groups to control my hips, torso, and arms. I learned about costuming, and Middle Eastern rhythms, and how to structure a performance set. I learned my first prop, dancing with a silken veil.

As with many teenagers going through various changes, I was awkward at first. But there was something about belly dance that engaged me; I felt good about my body while doing it, and I liked the music and costumes. I started taking low-key performance opportunities, like at dance swap-meets in the San Fernando Valley, and discovered that I liked performing, as much as it terrified me.

Then I went to UC Berkeley for college. I continued to study cabaret with a teacher whose dedication to technique and discipline inspired me so much that I took private lessons with her in addition to taking her weekly classes at the YWCA. If you’ve ever seen Nanna Candelaria dance, you know what I mean (there wasn’t much good footage of her online last time I checked, but she’s an amazing dancer).

I got distracted for a while, studying taekwondo and capoeira with my college friends. I took Israeli folk dance for a semester, ad Bharatanatyam for a 6-week course. I went on a lot of long walks, and began running in the fire trails of the Berkeley hills. Eventually, capoeira began shredding my knees, and I decided to return to belly dancing as my main fitness pursuit.

Still, something was missing. I loved the art form, but didn’t find much of the community I’d started to enjoy in the L.A. area. I wanted to do more with the movements, to move in different ways.

The puzzle pieces fell into place one day at a street fair in Berkeley, in 2002 I think. That’s when I saw the something else that would captivate me for over a decade….

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Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...